What is Volition?
‘It is volition, bikkhus, that I call kamma. For having willed, one acts by body, speech, or mind.’ – Buddha
Kamma is not fate. It literally means action, that is volitional action. A deed done deliberately through body, speech or mind. Every volitional action (except that of a Buddha or of an Arahant) is called Kamma. Kamma-formations (sa"nkhaara-cetanaa, 'karmic volition') constitutes both good and evil. In Karmic Volition (kusala Akusala Centanaa), good gets good, evil gets evil. Like attracts like. It is natural law that every action produces a certain effect.
Kamma denotes volition (cetanaa) and the other accompanying mental states found in any particular moral or immoral type of consciousness. Mind is the forerunner of all good and bad mental states. Cetanaa or volition is the most important of all mental states. It is this volition that constitutes Kamma, for the Buddha says - 'I declare that cetanaa (volition) is Kamma'. Mind precedes all actions and serves as the principal element both in performing and in assessing deeds. It is mind that rules and shapes action. Words and deeds are also produced by mind.
Volitional thought when occurring as kamma leading to rebirth on the sensuous plane, feeds and conditions sensuous existence. When occurring as kamma leading to rebirth on the fine-material or immaterial plane, it feeds and conditions the corresponding existence.
There are six classes of volitions (cetanaa): will directed to forms (ruupa-cetanaa), to sounds, odors, tastes, bodily impressions, and to mental objects. The `group of Mental Formations' (sankhaara-khandha) is a collective term for numerous functions or aspects of mental activity which, in addition to feeling and perception, are present in every single moment of consciousness. All such volitional constructs were conditioned by ignorance of the reality behind appearance. It is this ignorance that keeps us from making skillful decisions.
How the word functions in the "thought world" of the Dhamma?
When contact is there, these three things are born: feeling, perception and volition (vedana, sañña, and cetana). These three things are born dependent on contact. Therefore, when there is consciousness, all these factors arise: attention, contact, volition, perception and feeling, with a combination of the four great elements. Mentality (nama) consists of: feeling, perception, volition, contact, and attention – the same factors. Viññanam paccaya nama-rupam – dependent on consciousness, mentality and materiality arise.
The Buddha says ‘Bikkhus, I do not say that there is a termination of volitional kamma that has been done and accumulated as long as one has not experienced its results.’ Therefore, he stresses, that if you fear and detest suffering, do not commit evil deeds openly or secretly. From what we perceive we create sankhara (mental formations). If the mental factor was directed to a certain matter, on that occasion there is volitional activity, and this is called sankhara.
Sankhāra means either 'that which has been put together' or 'that which puts together'. To better understand the different ways that Sankhāra is described you could read ‘Anicca Vata Sankhara’ by Bhikkhu Bodhi. In the passive sense it refers to any compound form in the universe, a human being, or a thought. All these are sankhāras. All such things are impermanent, arising and passing away. Sankhāra is used in this first sense to describe the mental conditioning that gives any individual human being his or her unique character and make-up at any given time. In the active sense (sankhāra-kkandha) it refers to the form-creating faculty of mind (volition) that propels human beings along the process of becoming by means of actions of body and speech (kamma).
What is that single moment of choice?
The single moment is an intention (volitional effort) - a ‘Sankhāra’. So this single moment of choice – intention - needs to be skillful. An intention occurs according to what we perceive. Intentions occur about sounds, smells, tastes, and contacts that are recognized. When a mind’s thoughts are perceived, intentions occur according to those thoughts. All these intentions that are formed in various ways are Sanskhāra Upādānaskandha. The usual case is that the world is created within ownself as a result of ignorance. The consciousness created within ownself as volitional actions (sankhārā), proceeds on in search of worldly comforts sunk in the darkness of ignorance.
What is that single moment made of, what substance, what phenomena?
For an intention (volitional effort) to occur, feeling and perception should be in the mix. This is called contact. There are six kinds of contact. Contact of eye is the coming together and meeting of: eye, form and consciousness of eye. When we close our eyes, there is no contact of the eye, as consciousness of eye is not there at that moment to cognize a form. When there is the meeting of the three factors for contact of eye, then feeling, perception & intention (volitional effort) arises. The same is true for contact with the other five faculties: ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.
Who/What is doing the choosing?
There is no doer. This is dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of cause and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. As for what is doing the choosing…. Buddha said: "cētanāhan bikkhavē kamman wadāmi" ('O' monks, I declare that the volitions are kamma). The arising of volition (cetanaa) is the result of mental factors. They may be wholesome or unwholesome intentions. Mental factors are not permanent, they constantly change. They are the result of desire.
For instance if our consciousness is with the physical food we consume, we have a desire for food. We derive pleasure from what we eat. We have a passion for what we eat. Thus our mind is attached to the food. When our mind is attached, consciousness arises and grows. It grows like a tree. Therefore the cause for the growth of consciousness is passion, delight or pleasure and craving. When consciousness arises, mentality-materiality (nama rupa) is established. It is a reaction in our body - contact and feelings have arisen automatically. There are six factors that manifest itself. The four elements that constitute our body - the material phenomena (rupa); contact (phassa), feeling (vedanaa), perception (sannaa), volition (cetanaa) and attentiveness (manasikara). This is Kamma in the making.
Why A over B, or B over A, if both are equally likely?
Your actions are the results of choices that come and go. You can change yourself through changes in your actions. Like the porridge in the story of Goldilocks, you have all kinds of choices, but what you want is the one that’s just right. You always shape your life by the choices you make in what you say and do. If you’re not convinced of the importance of your actions, your actions are careless. The usual culprits are distractions, either internal or external. The internal ones are other thoughts, other intentions. Usually we are not in charge of our thoughts and act impulsively. It is our cravings and our ignorance / Avijja (Avidya) that determine what those choices we make. A lot of them are buried in subconscious parts of your awareness. We shape our life by the choices we make in what we say and do.
The aggregate of volitional activities (sankharakkhandha) is a burden. Life demands that we satisfy our daily needs and desires and for that satisfaction we decide on A over B, or B over A. This choice gets encouragement from our volition prompted by desire.